Monday, July 18, 2011

Searching for the story behind this photo

Years ago, when Milwaukee was filled with antique stores, I used to do a little shopping and A LOT of browsing. My college was located in the very heart of these shops, and I spent many hours wandering alone through old forgotten things while wondering who once owned them. If I was feeling really brave, I'd pay a visit to the basements of these places. The shop basements were dark, damp and filled with old furniture. It always felt like someone was down there, ready to jump out. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if someone was hiding down there. My main goals at the time were finding rhinestone jewelry, illustrated postcards from around 1900, and reference for my art. I bought this photograph as art reference:

I was rifling through stacks and stacks of old photographs, when suddenly I found her. I remember just staring at this image for several minutes. "Woah. What the heck is this?" I thought to myself. Here's what it is: American Gothic in every sense of the term!

The woman in this photograph wears a country house dress, sits in a chair and creepily glances up from a book. I'm going to make a guess (based on the hardware on the furniture and drinking glass behind her) that this image is from the 1930s. Although, her vintage Amy Winehouse hair is throwing me off. Who was still wearing their hair this long after 1920? Based on what she is wearing, and where I found the photo, I'm going to guess she is in a rural Wisconsin home. This woman is haunted, beautiful, and mysterious. She also reminds me of someone...

Remember Samara from The Ring? Well, I think this woman could be her older sister. They share the same hair, expression, dark circles under the eyes - they even have the same taste in clothes! I think Samara is rocking a gown from a mental hospital here, but close enough.

What is further mysterious is that this isn't just a photograph - it's a post card! Here is the back of the photo post card. It reads "This picture is pretty dark. It was taken in our kitchen."

So, the woman in the picture was sending this photo out to her friends? I have so many questions. I would be very curious to know when and where this picture was taken. The post card was never stamped, so I can't get a year from that. The handwriting doesn't contain any old school flourishes, so I'm pretty sure this is post-1900.

Take another look at her face. What kind of person do you think this was?

I'm interested in hearing the story that is conjured in your mind when you look at her.

I have a reason to think about old photos conjuring up stories. A few days ago, I was reading Kimbooly's Boo Spooky blog. There I learned about a fascinating new book: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

The book has an antique look and includes a series of haunting photographs. The author made a promo video for the book using photos of abandoned buildings in Belgium. You can watch that video on a Boo Spooky blog post by clicking Here. Kimbooly also posted a link to the author's Flickr page. If you're into decay at its finest, you'll want to see these beautiful abandoned mansions:

I had a fun time watching a full screen slideshow of these photos while listening to some spooky music. An eerie instrumental fits the mood of these photos perfectly!  I went with Mannheim Steamroller's Halloween album.

If any of you are like me and collect creepy old things, let me know! I'd love to see pictures of your antique finds.

I have an update since last night! My blog buddy, VainGlorySinner was nice enough to pass along another creepy photo postcard. This image has to be seen to be believed! Click HERE to see the ebay listing for it. Pretty funny, hey? I guess little girls were pretty tough in 1908. :) Anyway, if you take a look at the back of this postcard and mine, you'll notice some similarities. #1 Both photos were taken in the Midwest (no surprise there) and #2 both postcards have this mark in the upper right hand corner of the backside:

It turns out that this is the mark of the CYKO company. (Sounds like psycho if you say it out loud) Anyway, the CYKO mark can be found on postcards dating from 1904-1920s. So we know my postcard was made during that time. Also postcards were not divided down the middle (for writing addresses) until 1907. My postcard has a dividing line on the back. So this lady was photographed somewhere between 1907 and the 1920s. I learned all this postcard history here:
There's more on that page for anyone who wants to learn about vintage postcards.

Now that I've seen more creepy photo postcards, I'm tempted to start a collection! How great would it be to have a bunch of these images framed and on display for Halloween?


  1. I'm quite relieved that you didn't buy one of those old photographs of dead people propped up to look like they are still alive. Those really are creepy but this girl is kinda hot. :)

  2. Hahaha "This girl is kinda hot" Thanks for the laugh. Yeah, she is kind of attractive in a possessed sort of way!

    No, I wouldn't buy one of those propped up dead person photos. That was quite a fad for a while! If you ever want to get really grossed out/fascinated, get your hands on the book: Wisconsin Death Trip. There are lots of those pictures in there, as well as old newspaper stories (mostly about fire bugging) from the 1800s.

    Between sharing my photo and mentioning that book, I'm not doing a lot for Wisconsin history tonight...but in Wisconsin's defense, the winters here are really long and TV and the internet didn't exist back then! I guess people had to entertain themselves by taking creepy photos and setting barns on fire.

  3. An interesting find. I don't think she's too creepy, but that's because I've ended up looking like this in tons of pictures. When I was younger my eyebrows were thick and dark, often making me look kind of psychotic if I was smiling but had my head tilted downward slightly. As for origin, I'm assuming someone was a photographer and made it into a postcard for fun. Perhaps this was one of a set? I feel like it's from the 30s/40s. There's not enough furniture showing to really get a good idea of the time period. Antique stores can be a lot of fun, I enjoy going to them when I can. Sometimes they're a total drag (especially the vendors with hords of McDonalds toys, bleh), but sometimes you score some sweet deals. I paid fifteen dollars for an old ouija board. I know it's worth a bit more than that, but I don't know if I could ever part with it.

  4. The photo is absolutely fascinating!! I think she looks completely creepy. Of course, she could be entirely innocent, but she looks like she's gleefully plotting something wicked. (Clearly, Dr Blood likes his women dangerous!)

    If she's in the kitchen, that book on her lap could be a cookbook - poison mushrooms, anyone? It's making me think of the movie, 'The Beguiled', with Clint Eastwood, where the solider is trapped at a creepy girl's school during the Civil War.

    She also makes me think of Patricia, in 'The Frighteners', living in the creepy old house with her mother.

    Anyway, it is an incredible find. The writing on the back makes it even more intriguing. I think this would be a great starting point for an artwork or a story!!

  5. What an eerie picture! She has a very innocent looking face but also has very dark brooding eyes and that nest of hair upon her head isn't exactly teased to perfection like most women were in the 1920s/1930s - unless that was her hair first thing in the morning!

    From her clothes I would probably place her in the early 1920s and no earlier or later for 2 reasons.. women's attire was still quite pulled in at the waist with fitted tops and full skirts during 1910 but during the 1920s women loosened up a bit more and started showing a bit more skin e.g. flappers! Plus most women during the 1920s started bobbing their hair so I'm guessing early 1920s because maybe the fad didn't start until the mid 1920s and that is why her hair is still long?

    I love old creepy pictures too - I find history from the 1870s - 1920s very fascinating - especially around Jack the Rippers time. They weren't so taboo about death back then. Everything was so dark and desperate back then with the poor working class slaving in work houses just about scraping by.. this obviously lead to a lot of crime and misdeeds!

    If you like disturbing pictures then I will suggest Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective's Scrapbook - it's quite gory and interesting. xxx

  6. PS. I am definitely going to purchase that book! It sounds absolutely unique and wonderful but also very creepy! Thanks for sharing it! xxx

  7. I just watched the lengthier trailer for the book on Kimboolys channel.

    Those houses are so hauntingly beautiful! How they've just been left there untouched and decaying over time is astonishing! Why someone wouldn't want to move in and do the places up I have no idea but I'm glad nobody has because it's just like time stood still.

    So inspiring - I've just purchased the book from Amazon! xxx

  8. My first initial thought when I saw the photo was that it was taken in an asylum and the woman was a resident.
    But then upon closer perusal, I would dare to comment that this photo is staged. The circles under her eyes are too perfectly dark. And the way she's holding the book looks quite uncomfortable - not a natural way for a person to hold a book in their lap. But, that's just my opinion.....
    That book has been on my "Want" list for a while now....
    Hubby & I collect so many things....when we get settled in our new place, I may just do a series on my blog about our collections.....

  9. Absolutely fabulous! She is gorgeous in a very creepy, mysterious way. What a find!

  10. I was just browsing eBay and came across this postcard - the back of it is kind of the same plus it's creepy also!

  11. That picture does have that "Ring" creepiest to it. She looks like she is plotting something evil.

  12. I actually have to split my response to your comments into two parts, because blogger will only allow me to comment up to 4,096 characters at a time!

    Oh, I love to check in and see so many comments! What a fun surprise. :)

    Hiyoko ~ Oh my! It sounds like your psychotic photos are a thing of the past? Be sure to keep your head up while being photographed! I think a big part of what makes this photo creepy is the woman looking up while her head is tilted down. Also, a lot of things look spookier in black and white than they would in color. The shadows are made more intense.

    I'm starting to agree that this was made for fun and was also part of a set. I was doing a little research, which I'll add to this post later today. One thing I've found out for sure - this post card wasn’t made after the 1920s.

    Haha, oh yeah the old plastic toys from McDonald's. I prefer antique to vintage. I'm getting old enough now that the stuff from my childhood is "vintage" yikes! An object isn't so exciting to me if I was alive during its heyday. Oh! How old is your Ouija Board? I'd like to hear more about that and see a picture of it! It might be a lot like an old one I have. Does it have a metal pointer instead of plastic? Please email me a pic!

    Little Gothic Horrors ~
    Yes, she might have been a very nice girl. :) I agree that she looks like she's plotting something wicked. She could be looking up from her spell book. Maybe the photographer turned into a toad right after this pic was taken? ;) Haha, yes it appears Dr. Blood is accepting of a lady with a few issues! If she had a different demeanor and a new outfit, she’d probably look pretty cute.

    I haven't seen The Beguiled, but now I want to check that movie out! I also haven't seen The Frighteners, but I remember really wanting to see it! This might be a good week for sitting and watching a few movies. It's pretty much going to be 100 degrees all week!

    Yes, the writing adds a lot for me. I'm not sure how big you can get the image of the postcard back by clicking on it, but take a closer look. She has some very unique handwriting. I agree that the photo would be great inspiration for something!

  13. VainGlorySinner ~ Get ready for a long response. :) Yes, part of what is intriguing about this for me is her combination of innocence and brooding. Haha, yes that is quite a head of hair. In parts it almost looks like dreads. This could have been an early morning picture. Or maybe she was looking a little worn out by the end of the day?

    I was willing to be flexible with the time frame, because she might not have been a fashion plate while living on the farm. I'm thinking that you’re right on the money with the dates you listed. I did a little research today after looking at the hilarious postcard you sent me to. That was just great! I think I'll have to post that link again in my blog post. That girl on the end with the axe was so funny! Actually, everyone in that picture looked insane in the eyes. Anyway, I noticed that the pic you found has some things in common with mine. So later on, I'll be updating this blog post with what I learned!

    Yes!1850-1900 is my time of choice! No, they weren’t so taboo about death. In fact, people accepted that death was another part of life then. Now, people are more squeamish. Jack the Ripper – yikes! I would assume that you’d know a lot of interesting local history, since you’re in England. Oh, I’m not sure if I could handle a book titled A Homicide Detective's Scrapbook, but I’m sure it’s fascinating!

    Yes, those houses are hauntingly beautiful! Did you see the pictures where vines and other plants had completely taken over the room through windows? Amazing. Some of those places had the furnishings left in place from when the people left. There was a picture of a perfect wool suit still hanging at the end of a hall. That one really got to me! Oh, you’ll have to let me know what you think of the book. I can’t wait to pick it up too!

    Jeanne ~ Ha! Asylum portraits. Can you imagine? Maybe someone did take a series of photos of the patients – I’m sure that would have been an interesting project. The photo could have been staged. I have a photo of some relatives from the 1930s that is completely staged and a little creepy. So, that is entirely possible! It’s funny that someone would choose to stage a photo back when pictures weren’t taken for granted so much. Now, we just snap a bunch of digital pictures and delete them! I would love to talk to the woman in this picture about her pose and the purpose of this.

    Well, actually without concealer, some people do have this dark of eye circles! Add to that the dark shadows in the room, and I believe those are unfortunately real. No, the way she is holding a book is not the way I would. Not if I was actually reading it, anyway. I do like that part of the picture, because her hand is graceful and creates a neat shape. I’d love to see a blog series on your collections when you have a chance!

    Robin ~ Good to see you here and glad you liked this! Yes, I think the mystery of this photo is what keeps me coming back to it. My brain has been trying to figure this out for years. The picture pulls me in and keeps my eyes there. I’m stuck on it being a pretty image with something not quite right about it.

    Adsila ~ Yes, it’s all in her eyes! I wish I knew what she was thinking at the time. I wonder what this woman would think about people analyzing and discussing her photo 100 years after it was taken? Not to mention it being shared across the world on the internet.

  14. Yeah, I'm sorry but I never would've come close to purchasing that picture. She scares the %#%$# out of me....almost as much as the poltergeist clown. The blurry face only ads to the creepiness.

  15. Haha! Yeah, my excitement when buying this picture turned into mild dread as I brought it home. Maybe I've see too many Amityville Horror movies. I mean, if bringing a lamp home from a flea market can cause a haunting...imagine what this photo might do!

    Here's something funny: Last night while I had this picture by my computer, I heard a buzzing noise. I actually thought of the flies from The Amityville story! It turned out to only be a flying ant sitting on the photo. Still, it was kind of creepy. I honestly can't stare into her face for too long without getting spooked. Sometimes I hold the photo close to my face to see the details, but it's hard for me to do! I agree that the blurriness of her face adds to the creep factor. What's strange is that most of the photo aside from her face is crisp and clear...

  16. I'm loving this post, Justine! All the comments are really interesting, as well. Like VainGlorySinner, I'm off to Amazon in a minute!!

    I totally recommend 'The Beguiled' and 'The Frighteners'. I haven't seen 'The Beguiled' in years, so I must re-watch it myself, but I remember it being incredibly atmospheric. 'The Frighteners' is scary and fun. You'll see what I mean about Patricia and her mother!!

  17. Little Gothic Horrors ~
    I'm enjoying all these insightful comments too! It seems that this photo has provoked a lot emotions and consideration.

    Wow! It sounds like book sales are up for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. :) I'll need to get my hands on that too. What I would love is a coffee table book of those abandoned mansion photos. I bet that would sell if someone put it together!

    OK, I'll have to find those movies! I'm planning to rent The Burbs from our local library tomorrow. I believe you were the one who recommended that in your blog? Once I googled the movie and read its plot, I knew I had to see it!

  18. Oh, 'The 'Burbs' is my favourite comedy of all time! I know some people think it's ridiculous but there's a big cult following for that film. Also, if you grew up in suburbia (like I did), you will really relate to it.

    Prepare for some seriously silly spookiness! I hope you enjoy it!!

  19. Haha! I'm always ready for some silly spookiness. :)

    Yes, I do have some experience with suburbia. The suburbs can be scary in a way. I can't wait to watch this movie! I'll let you know what I think.

  20. Most interesting post, and the comments are fabulous too! I'll be stocking up on all the books and movies mentioned.
    But the could be the Mona Lisa of all creepy photos- just look at her mysterious smile. But me, I'm wondering about her foot. It looks weird to me- is something covering up part of it? As for blurriness, yes, her face is blurred and actually so is the book. Odd that the depth of field didn't affect the dress in any way. With that tiny check print, you'd know if it was out of focus. Anyway, I do think Jeanne is right about it being posed, for the reasons she listed.

  21. Justine - Thanks for the write up! I love the picture of the woman! I have a bust shot of me with a very similar look, from years ago. It's over on my Facebook page.

    I read the book a couple of days ago. Loved it! Ransom Riggs has a fantastic imagination, being able to compile a story from photographs...amazing.

  22. Hey Justine, I was thinking about the photo, (and creepy kids in general), and thought you might be interested in this short film on YouTube. It's by Etsy seller, Christy Kane. She made a film using her dolls. It's a cautionary tale about "Callalilly" and very much in the same tone as the rest of this post, I think.

  23. trick or treat ~ I've loved reading all these comments! Everyone has had something interesting, informative, or funny to add! This may be the most attention this photo has received in 100 years. :)

    "The Mona Lisa of all creepy photos" That's great! Yes the hint of a smile combined with the expression in her eyes makes it look like she's up to no good. This image is about as mysterious as the Mona Lisa to me!

    I agree that her foot is strange. She's wearing quite the heavy white stockings for summer with what appear to be white shoes. I'm assuming this photo was taken in the summer, based on her dress. I'm not sure what kind of shoes ladies would be wearing from 1915-1920s. I did a brief search and only found pictures of buttoned boots in 1910 and dainty heels in the 1920s. This probably calls for more research! If anyone out there is a vintage shoe expert, please give me some input!

    Yes, every little check on that dress is clear. I can see what you're saying about the book. Perhaps some pages were turning as the photo was taken?

    Kimbooly ~ You're welcome and thank you for the inspiration! :) I'd love to see your photo. I tried the link to your facebook page and it wouldn't open for me. So let me know if you have the pic online elsewhere or please email that to me!

    On another note ~ Isn't Ransom Riggs a great name?

    Sean ~ Don't even say that! I was already considering that I brought some mojo into the house along with this photo!

    Little Gothic Horrors ~ I just watched the youtube clip. What a fantastic way for this lady to advertise her dolls! That was actually pretty disturbing. Doll art and movies do freak me out sometimes. The video has a good message, though. Rarely does anything good come from having a temper. I'll have to check out the rest of her videos! Thanks for passing this along. :)

  24. Brilliant research on the postcard stamps! Those dates seem perfect to me!

    I would recommend 'The Frighteners' also! It's one of my favourite comedy/scary movies.

    I agree with you about that one lonesome suit hanging at the end of the hall - it looked in almost perfect condition as if someone had just nipped in there to hang a freshly washed suit to air out but I bet on closer inspection its very moth eaten!

    I'd love to visit those houses - especially stay over night but I'm guessing that would be very unsafe. I've been to Belgium once but that was to visit all the WW2 graves and memorials during a school trip - best school trip ever!

    I just checked out the Callalilly video too and I loved it! Such a creepy video but also quite beautiful. I have two raggy dolls very similar to those dolls - love creepy dolls!

    I'd love to make a collection of strange and weird old photos and I agree they would looks amazing at Halloween - Oh I can't wait until Halloween!! Eek! xxx

  25. Thanks! Yeah, the more I think about it, the more the time frame makes sense. Based on her long hair and relatively loose fitting, long dress. It was fun researching this photo! I felt like I was on The History Detectives show. :)

    Yes, there's something weird about objects being left in a way that suggests a person still lives in an abandoned place. It gives me an uneasy feeling. Yeah, if you touched that suit, it would probably fall to the floor in a heap of dust! :)

    It probably would be unsafe to stay overnight in one of those places. I'm guessing they would attract a few squatters? A friend took me on a tour of an abandoned cabin in the woods last October. I was wondering as we wandered through it in the dark, if someone was squatting there at the time. (There was no electricity.) I was ready to get out of there!

    See, you're so lucky to live in Europe. Just hop on over to Belgium for a school trip! :)

    Yes, that Callalilly video was moving and actually hard for me to watch at times. I guess it's disturbing since dolls are like little people. Did you make your raggy dolls or are they from your childhood?

    Oh, you know I'm counting down the months till Halloween! Let's get those spooky photo collections going! I would love to see any pictures you find. It would be neat to compare photos, since we have different resources for finding them!

  26. That is such an eerie picture, she looks so innocent in the face by dark at the same time. I love it but very creepy.

  27. Both my rag dolls are hand made.

    I got one of them from a shop called Dusty Attic Bears in my home town of Glastonbury. It reminded me of Rocky Horror's Frank-N-Furter so that's what I've named him.

    The other was purchased from a seller on eBay who makes all kinds of weird dolls - she calls them Freaky Folk!
    She reminds me of Lenore the cute little dead girl created by Roman Dirge, only with black hair! I've also names her Lenore!

    I want more creepy rag dolls! xxx

  28. Real Queen of Horror ~
    Yes, I think her being in part a sweet, innocent looking young lady adds to the mystery of this picture. If it was an otherwise creepy looking person acting creepy, the picture would be more straight forward. As it is, I'm left wondering "What's wrong with this picture?"

    VainGlorySinner ~ A doll that looks like Dr. Frank-N-Furter? This I would love to see! Please post some pictures of your creepy dolls or email some pics to me. I bet other people would want to see them too.

    Yeah, I always thought Lenore looked like a little rag doll. I must not have read enough of those comics to know she was dead! I thought she was just a morbid little girl.

    There's no shortage of creepy dolls being sold online! So you should have no problem building your collection. :)